AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 44/2006

Desecrators of the Dead The Bundeswehr's Excesses in Afghanistan

Part 2: "We must instill greater values into our soldiers"


Military Commissioner Reinhold Robbe says he is not overly surprised by the shocking images. "Given the gruesome experiences to which these soldiers are exposed, such excesses are not exactly surprising."

Eighteen German soldiers have already been killed in Afghanistan. This is the highest death toll among all German military missions abroad, and it demonstrates just how dead serious life has become for these troops. Since the first deadly attack on the German military in June 2003, in which four German soldiers riding in a military bus in Kabul were killed -- an incident that almost coincided with the first skull photos -- Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers have launched dozens of attacks against the Bundeswehr.

Graphic: Death in the South
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Death in the South

Most recently, unknown assailants attacked German patrols in northern Afghanistan with bazookas, wounding one soldier. One of the soldiers who was involved in the desecrations of corpses attributes the outrageous behavior to the tremendous pressure the troops face in a war zone. "We were nervous," he says. "There had been several accidents and attacks." Indeed, the risks have become so great that Defense Minister Jung has ordered his troops not to leave their camps unless they are riding in armor-plated vehicles. Welcome to war.

The photo scandal weighs heavily on a military force that, though currently involved in ten foreign missions worldwide, is poorly prepared for operations in real crisis zones. For decades, the Bundeswehr operated on the basis of Cold War principles, pursuing a strategy of military preparedness to avert military conflict.

Even operations such as the 1993/94 mission in Somalia, where the Bundeswehr drilled wells, or the airlift into besieged Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, had little in common with true combat operations. Indeed, close encounters with war -- such as Serbian attempts to shoot down German fighter jets during the Kosovo conflict -- have been the exception rather than the rule for the Bundeswehr.

But in 2002, when then Defense Minister Peter Struck (SPD) announced that Germany was in fact being "defended in the Hindu Kush," it was an almost insurmountable challenge for what Struck characterized as a "powerful force." Suddenly German soldiers were being expected to have both the capability and the motivation to fight.

Before being sent overseas, the soldiers who volunteer for foreign missions spend weeks in training at the Bundeswehr's infantry school in the Bavarian town of Hammelburg. In addition to learning how to properly set up guard posts and what to do if taken hostage, soldiers are also trained in how to settle disputes and respect foreign customs -- at least in theory. The navy even offers "Islam lessons" for soldiers deployed to patrol the Horn of Africa, where they are patrolling the seas in order to prevent shipments to terrorists.

"Equating it with Abu Ghraib is ridiculous"

But for experts like Reinhard Erös, a former military physician who, with his organization German Aid for Afghan Children (Kinderhilfe Afghanistan) has been building schools in the Hindu Kush region for years, this isn't enough. Germany's soldiers, says Erös, were sent on missions "without fundamental knowledge" -- knowledge that a few hours of cultural sensitivity training in Hammelburg could not possibly have provided.

Robbe, a Social Democrat, agrees: "We must instill greater intercultural competency and moral values into our soldiers." Robbe believes that the troops must understand "that these values are not just applicable in Berlin or Hamburg, but should also be applied during missions in Afghanistan or the Balkans."

But Klaus Reinhardt, the former commander of NATO peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, warns against exaggerating the problem. "It's certainly a macabre affair, but equating it with Abu Ghraib is ridiculous." German soldiers, says Reinhardt, may not be "ethnologists or anthropologists," but compared with troops from other nations they are still the best prepared for foreign cultures. "More than that simply cannot be achieved in six weeks of preparatory training."

In truth, not too many German soldiers would do well if required to undergo excessively intellectual training. The Bundeswehr has not been successful in attracting the kinds of people it needs -- qualified officers, at the very least -- for foreign missions. In most cases, those with the best job prospects would much prefer to spend their days sitting in a comfortable desk job than risk their lives in inhospitable Afghanistan.

According to Ulrike Merten, the chairwoman of the defense committee in the German parliament, the Bundeswehr doesn't face the US military's problems of recruiting from among the lower classes of society. In his white paper, the defense minister raves about how innovative the Bundeswehr is when it comes to training and education. And yet the military has trouble making military service attractive to highly qualified IT specialists, medical professionals or radio operators. As a result, many of the more skilled positions within the Bundeswehr, especially among its medical corps and special forces, have remained unfilled.

Declining education

The level of education among soldiers has declined considerably, says military commissioner Robbe. Indeed, during a visit to one of the Bundeswehr's recruitment offices, the military commissioner was able to witness the lack of adequate education within the military profession firsthand. "One of the junior officers," says Robbe, "couldn't even tell me the names of the defense minister or the chancellor."

Sending uneducated hoodlums into war may be the customary practice worldwide, but the Bundeswehr knows all too well how a small spark can quickly set off a major conflagration. Late last week, the Defense Ministry gloomily predicted that the longer-term effects of the macabre photo shoots were unpredictable. The photos have circled the globe, reaching Afghanistan and the madrassa in Akora Khattak, Pakistan, a place so renowned that even chief Taliban religious warrior Mullah Omar received his religious training there.

Sami ul-Haq, the Taliban's senior religious teacher, clicked on the "shock photos" on the Internet the morning they were released. He is familiar with the photos showing German soldiers placing a bleached-out skull taken from Afghan soil onto the hood of their "Wolf" all-terrain truck.

The act was clearly a serious violation of the laws of Islam, the prominent madrassa director says over green tea and cookies. But, he adds, "how serious" a violation has yet to be determined. It would depend on whether the skull was that of a Russian infidel who once attacked Afghanistan or of a Muslim fighter, who would qualify as a holy warrior in Sami ul-Haq's eyes. He thoughtfully strokes his brownish-red beard as he speaks. In the latter case, as he sees it, the Germans would be no better than the Americans, with their torture chambers and sexual humiliation in the prisons of Bagram and Abu Ghraib.

Fears of a backlash

Things remained calm in the Islamic world until the weekend. There were public holidays and no newspapers were printed. Nor had the question of whether the skulls were Russian or not been resolved. Nevertheless, the West has already experienced just how explosive such incidents can become in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

At least 15 people died during mass unrest in Afghanistan after Newsweek published an article in May 2005 about alleged desecration of the Koran at the US prison camp in Guantanamo. The Muhammed cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper drove angry Muslims into the streets for massive protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. That incident also claimed lives, as radical Islamists skillfully took advantage of emotions to incite violence. Pictures make for powerful arguments, especially in countries where the majority of the people are illiterate.

The international echo is already devastating today. "It is to be feared that, when television stations like Al Jazeera and others in the Middle East broadcast the images, a wave of anger and hate will rise up in the Islamic world," warns La Repubblicca in Rome. In Russia, Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant wrote on Friday that the incident was reminiscent of the darker pages in German history, and of "soldiers of the Führer playing with the skulls of their enemies." The conservative Turkish paper Cumhuriyet even wrote of what it called a "civilization of skulls."

"This is the way a lance-corporal can trigger a small war," says former military doctor Erös, who fears for the safety of his schools in Afghanistan if a wave of protests erupts.

Despite all the outrage, the main impact of the photos at the Bundeswehr's facility in Kabul was to trigger concerns over the German contingent's own safety. "As if it weren't dangerous enough here," complained one member of the German force.

NATO officials in Kabul, however, have taken a more relaxed approach to the incident. After all, they argue, other nations with a presence in Afghanistan have experienced dramatic mistakes on the part of their troops at one time or another. "Shit happens to everyone at some point," an English officer told a glum German companion at NATO headquarters late last week. "And today it happened to you. That's life."

By ULRIKE DEMMER, SUSANNE KOELBL, BRITTA SANDBERG and ALEXANDER SZANDAR

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